Updated: Jan 14
Same old, same old. Covid, lockdown, work from home, play from home. Weekdays at home, weekends at home. Routine at home and holiday at home. More restrictions. Fear at home, little joys at home, all of the emotions at home. News, numbers, press conferences, deliveries. Everything is the same, and everything happens from the same place and with the same small group of people.
We are still somehow frightened but we are getting used to all this. We are getting numb because it's getting too monotonous. It's called Pandemic fatigue. Time, life and its experiences are a blur. We got desensitized.
We are approaching the first Anniversary of the Pandemic in Europe and we bet that if you had to ask the person next to you, they wouldn't know how this time has passed or what they have done with the last 365 days. This pandemic has robbed so much from us.
But why the last year seems to have lasted a second and at the same time a decade? What happens to our time perception when we end up doing much of the same things?
Some prominent neuroscientists and researchers, including David Eagleman, agree, between various theories, that this could have something to do with information processing.
Our brains receive consistently a vast amount of information from our senses and collate them in a such way that will make sense to us. Eagleman (2009) says "when our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated."
So we can say that the more new information we receive, the slower the brain in processing them and the longer will be the perception of time.
On the other hand, if your brain is receiving familiar information - as it's been processed before - it will not have to work very hard and time will pass faster. Eagleman explains it in this way: “Time is this rubbery thing, it stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”
Emotions - and their function - are also playing a part in time perception as Droidt-Vole and Gil describe (2009). For example, in the presence of danger, mind and body switch on to prepare for action and the internal clock runs faster in order to protect the organism. "When the clock runs faster, more pulses are accumulated and the duration is judged longer." As Hammond (2013) points out, when gripped by strong feelings of fear, even not in life or death situation, we perceive reality in slow motion. On the other side, Gable and Poole (2012) offer the idea that emotional states such as excitement and desire in the pursuit of pleasure (not just contentment) speed up the perception of time, by shutting down certain attention and memory processes in order to ignore thoughts and feelings not relevant at that time.
We can then say that the pandemic has slowed down time at the beginning as we were really frightened, the situation was really unusual; but looking back it seems like it has passed really quickly, as we have been doing more of the same things over and over again.
How to turn this around when the pandemic is still going on and we might actually be just at the worse of it?
This is so important as it's not just a matter of how we manage or structure our life; as Hammond says, time is the way we experience it.
In our latest blog, we talked about the importance of stability through routine, as this reduces uncertainty and increases sense of safety. Now, it is definitely the time to point our attention to the importance of variety.
As Eagleman as suggested, we don't have to scratch our brain to look for new stuff all the time; we can simply do old stuff in a different way, such as learning to brush our teeth with the not dominant hand and wear our watch on the other side. Time will pass differently, in pace and emotions.
Sameness robs us of sense of pleasure and achievement and gets us stuck in a rut of low motivation. It messes up with our time perception and blurs our life compartments and roles into a tasteless soup.
Sameness affects the quality of our time, which is the only one we get given in life. Even if it's pandemic time.
Self-care can also be this then, must be this: introduce something different or make what you know different.
It's, at the end, always our time. Even now.
Droit-Volet, S., & Gil, S. (2009). The time-emotion paradox. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364(1525), 1943–1953.
Eagleman, D (2009) Brain Time published in Brockman, M. (Ed) What's Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science. Vintage.
Gable, P. A., & Poole, B. D. (2012). Time flies when you’re having approach-motivated fun. Psychological Science, 23, 879–886.
Hammond, C. (2013) Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. Harper Perennials.